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Opinion

Myanmar's military will struggle to hold on to power

Being forced to revisit the past does not mean Myanmar will stay there

| Myanmar
Aung San Suu Kyi walks to take an oath at the lower house of parliament in May 2012: a civil-military lesson is that civilian accommodation of the military is ultimately futile.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of political science in Bangkok.

When Myanmar's armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1, observers of the country everywhere were caught off guard.

Myanmar's decadelong transition through two consecutive and successful elections from military dictatorship to gradual democratization lured many into thinking that reversal and closure were unthinkable. As none saw it coming, all will need to use the benefit of hindsight to explain their lack of foresight. At issue now is Myanmar's civil-military relations and their impact on the future at home, as well as the regional repercussions and geopolitical implications.

After the United Solidarity and Development Party, the Tatmadaw's proxy, fared abysmally in the November elections, everyone assumed it would acknowledge the results and rely on the 2008 constitution. That guarantees the military control of a quarter of parliament, as well as security-related cabinet portfolios and the vice-presidential slot. This power-sharing arrangement worked in 2015 when the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won an overwhelming majority. But this time, after the NLD won a second absolute majority, the electoral humiliation was too much for Myanmar's armed forces.

Facing the prospect of indefinite defeats at the ballot box, even power-sharing became an unacceptable liability because the civilian-led government would eventually grow so strong as to be able to change the rules and clip the Tatmadaw's wings, including its vested business interests in the fast-growing and resource-rich economy.

After a whole decade as commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing's mandatory retirement in July added another incentive for the coup, because it would let him extend his term at the top.

A civil-military lesson from Myanmar and next-door Thailand, whose high command staged its own putsch in 2014 by ousting the elected leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, another woman, is that civilian accommodation of the military on budget outlays and cabinet positions -- even on race and religion, as Suu Kyi sought consonance with the army on Rohingya persecution at a cost to her international standing -- is ultimately futile. Completely defanging the armed forces and putting them firmly under civilian control at the earliest opportunity is absolutely necessary to sustain democratization.

Although it appears firmly ensconced in power for now, the Tatmadaw will be hard-pressed to maintain its rule. First, the generals are ill-equipped to manage a modernizing economy. Unlike the five decades of relative isolation under the military dictatorship that ruled from 1962 to 2010, the top brass now lacks the know-how and policy experts who assisted Suu Kyi's civilian government -- her leadership shortcomings and the NLD's patchy economic reforms and development progress notwithstanding.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, standing, and other military members attend a meeting at Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw on Feb. 1: the generals are ill-equipped to manage a modernizing economy.   © The Military True News Information Team/AP

There are not many technocrats to begin with in Myanmar, and few of them will want to join the junta's ruling elite. As more stakeholders with rising expectations are now involved, they will want a say in maintaining Myanmar's growth trajectory, which is already being tested by the pandemic and other challenges.

Second, the dozen years since the new constitution came into force and the military's withdrawal in favor of elections have bred a new and younger demographic. The younger generation is unlikely to put up with a prolonged military government that is incompetent. Their exasperation and disenchantment will only grow.

Third, information and communications technologies these days cannot be so easily severed. The internet will have a way of circumventing official control, thereby empowering and connecting critics and dissidents.

Finally, the international community is likely to have learned from the past how to exert pressure on Myanmar. From the U.S. and the European Union, to Japan, Australia and other notable democracies, another harsh and rigid sanctions regime is probably not in the offing. More pointed and punitive measures, such as travel and financial restrictions against Tatmadaw generals and their cronies, will be more effective, together with pressure from below.

Unlike Thailand's military, the post-coup Tatmadaw will not be automatically drawn to China in the face of Western sanctions. The Tatmadaw's uneasy relationship with China, a superpower that is both complicit in Myanmar's northern ethnic conflicts and instrumental in its peace process and economic development, will give Western democracies leverage when it comes to dealing with the self-appointed men in green.

Governments and societies in favor of pushing back against the Tatmadaw's democratic rollback should brace themselves for turmoil and turbulence ahead. With pressure percolating at home and abroad, a popular uprising to counter the coup would not be surprising. Equally unsurprising would be an armed response from the Tatmadaw, as was brutally demonstrated in the late 1980s and 2007. This time, Myanmar dissidents cannot count on Thailand and its military-backed royalist-conservative regime to provide sanctuary and respite, as it did in the 1990s and 2000s.

For democratic aspirants in Southeast Asia and beyond, what the Tatmadaw has done is dirty, dark and despicable. Detaining Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders, taking over government and declaring a state of emergency for one year have turned back the clock decades. Myanmar is now leading an authoritarian race to the bottom in view of Thailand's coup in 2014 and other democratic setbacks in the region.

A "banana region," Southeast Asia now features two military-authoritarian regimes, with and without electoral facade. The rest either have no popular elections or face erosion of democratic rights and values. The only democratic standout, by virtue of not backsliding, is Singapore.

Living in such a neighborhood provides a limited reprieve to the Tatmadaw. As ASEAN's current rotating chair, Brunei, whose government is an absolute monarchy, will lead the regional grouping's perfunctory response without applying palpable pressure.

The people of Myanmar have come full circle, but being forced back into their past does not mean having to stay there. Popular defiance and pushback from within, and support from farther away, can help Myanmar get back on the democratization track of development and progress.

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